Friday, March 30, 2018
March 30, 2018: Baseball Stories: Boston Strong
[For this year’s Opening Day series, I’ll be highlighting individual baseball stories and AmericanStudying their contexts and meanings. Play ball!]
On the communal roles, and limits, of sports in the aftermath of tragedy.
It’s difficult (if not impossible) to argue with the idea that the 2013 Boston Red Sox became inextricably intertwined with the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. From David Ortiz’s F-bomb heard ‘round the world to the Sports Illustrated cover celebrating the Sox’s run to a World Series championship, and in countless instances in between and since, the baseball season’s surprise team was connected to the year’s most striking tragedy. And, more exactly and more crucially, the team’s success was linked to the phrase that became ubiquitous after the Marathon and that was utiilized on that SI cover: Boston Strong. The phrase became so tied to the Sox that Fenway Park’s landscapers even began mowing it into the field itself during the playoffs.
It would be at least as difficult to argue that such associations were or are problematic, or that the Sox didn’t play a communal role in helping Boston move forward after one of the worst days in the city’s history—and I don’t plan to try. Indeed, as someone who is profoundly interested in communal memories and narratives, and especially in how we deal with and move forward through our darkest histories, I found a great deal to admire in how Boston has done so in this case. There are of course no perfect answers for how we grapple with darkness, and there are flaws with any and all options, but it seems clear in this instance—as in other recent ones, such as in New York in the aftermath of 9/11—that sports had a meaningful role to play. After all, the Sox are Bostonians and citizens too, grappling (as Ortiz’s comments demonstrated) with the same questions and traumas; it’s easy to think of professional athletes as super-human, but situations like these tend to reveal our shared humanity, and there are few more significant revelations.
If I were to analyze one limitation to what sports can do and offer in such circumstances, I would do so in direct relationship to my one issue with the Boston Strong phrase: its emphasis on entirely positive responses and stories, in explicit exclusion of other, more complex and dark ones. For example, it’s fair to say that the bombings—like any such event—inspired a host of negative emotions and responses, from fear and panic to bigotry and divisiveness. Admitting and engaging with those negatives wouldn’t in any way mean that we’d have to characterize the city or community through them—simply that we need to note that shared humanity includes some of our most painful or troubling as well as our best and most inspiring qualities. And while sports are good for many things, I don’t know that they can do much to help us engage with our darkest qualities—even if the Sox hadn’t won the championship, that is, the narrative of their season would have been an inspiring and uplifting one. Rightly so, perhaps; but there’s also a need for other stories and histories, ones that can’t be mowed onto the outfield grass but that are part of us nonetheless.
March Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other baseball stories or histories you’d highlight?